Astronomers near capturing star’s moment of death

An amateur astronomer recently discovered what has been confirmed to be one of the best looks yet at a planetary nubula, the last, gassy breath of a dying star. The nebula, named Kronenberger 61 after the enthusiast who discovered it, will offer insights into the future and death of our own sun.

Matthias Kronenberger, part of an astronomy club called the Deep Sky Hunters, first discovered the phenomenon, which was then confirmed by a team led by Dr. Orsola De Marco of Australia’s Macquarie University. The team used the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona to hone in on Kn 61 and have added it to the observation list for NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.

Scientists don’t agree on whether or not nebulae, which are giant space clouds of gas and dust, are the end result of every star or if they only occur under specific circumstances. De Marco said in a statement that the big puffs are the source of plenty of argument within the astronomy community.

“Planetary nebulae present a profound mystery,” De Marco said. “Some recent theories suggest that planetary nebulae form only in close binary or even planetary systems. On the other hand, the conventional textbook explanation is that most stars, even solo stars like our sun, will meet this fate. That might just be too simple.”

Kepler was launched in 2009 to search for and investigate Earth-like planets around stars. The telescope has already found 1,200 possibilities so far, but with 150,000 stars in the region it’s currently searching, Kepler’s schedule is very tight. That makes amateurs like Kronenberger extremely important in the search for new places of interest, and in fact astronomers with the Kepler program have given coordinates and data to amateurs in an effort to enlist their help in searching the Kepler study area.

Update: Image via the Gemini Observatory.

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